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This Day in Labor History: July 2, 1980

[ 11 ] July 2, 2015 |

hazard

On July 2, 1980, the Supreme Court ruled in Industrial Union Department AFL-CIO v. American Petroleum Institute that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration must take economic considerations into account when issuing regulations. This 5-4 decision severely impacted the ability of the government to take an aggressive and preemptive stand against workplace health problems.

One thing that often gets left behind in discussions of OSHA is the health part of the agency’s mission. We focus on safety. That’s because those issues are easier to take care of. You put proper protection around a saw and it becomes a lot less dangerous. But health is a whole other issue. You have a couple of issues making it so. First is the long term impact of work upon health, which means that occupational illness can take decades to become apparent. Second is that remaking worksites so that workers aren’t exposed is a lot more expensive than the saw guard. Protecting workers from benzene, toxic gases, or dust has real challenges. And those solutions can be expensive.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 charged the federal government with protecting workers on the job from industrial hazards. OSHAct stated, “no employee will suffer material impairment of health or functional capacity even if such employee has regular exposure to the hazard dealt with by such standard for the period of his working life.” It built on the “Precautionary Principle” that was in favor during these years for dealing with workplace safety and health issues, addressing environmental uncertainties in the regulatory process before they became problems. That means in the case of workplace health trying to figure out what substances might cause health problems and preemptively eliminating them. That requires action even if scientific data doesn’t exist that suggests there is a problem, but only that there could be in theory. This principle drove the move toward environmental and workplace regulation during the 1970s in both the United States and Europe. But the political implications of this were not worked out in the legislation and Congress gave OSHA a lot of leeway in figuring out how the agency would actually operate.

OSHAct tasked the Secretary of Labor is bound to set out rules for substances like benzene, even if only one worker might become unhealthy due to exposure. It was benzene at play in Industrial Union Department. OSHA sought to regulate benzene, an carcinogen, but without really nailing down how many workers’ lives would be saved in doing so.

The American Petroleum Institute decided to fight this, even though the petroleum industry clearly had the money to protect its workers from benzene exposure (it didn’t even bother arguing otherwise). Industry had engaged in a court campaign to slow down OSHA from its beginning, challenging the agency at every turn. On the other hand, the AFL-CIO led the charge to save the Precautionary Principle, building on its significant progress in fighting for workplace health in the 1970s. OSHA finally was up and running at full capacity by the late 1970s with Jimmy Carter naming Eula Bingham as the agency’s head. Bingham, the first OSHA director who really supported the agency’s mission, sought to remake workplace environments around the nation, often with the active support of those unions who saw the agency as a way to empower workers on the shop floor to protect themselves and express workplace power at the same time. So defending the Precautionary Principle became a top OSHA priority after 1977. Bingham’s OSHA created standards for acrylonitrile, cotton dust, lead, arsenic, and benzene.

Yet for organized labor, this was very slow progress. By 1981, the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) had recommended 250 standards but OSHA had only implemented 21 of those. Only 4 of these standards dealt with cancer-causing agents. In my forthcoming book on timber unions, I discuss in some detail how the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) was frustrated that their concerns on a wood dust standard was not taken seriously enough by OSHA. So for corporations, these standards were outrageous and for workers, they were too little and usually too late. The Precautionary Principle was a great idea but workers in the 1970s were impatient and wanted immediate remediation of the problems of work.

In the case itself, more popularly known as the benzene case, the Court had two primary objections. First was to rule on the benzene standard itself, specifically the reduction of benzene at the workplace from 10 parts per million to 1 ppm. Second was whether OSHA needed to have a “reasonable relationship” between the costs and benefits of new standards. The Court’s majority (John Paul Stevens wrote the opinion with Burger and Stewart in the majority while Rehnquist and Powell wrote concurring opinions) decided to read Congress’ mind in interpreting the Occupational Safety and Health Act, assuming Congress couldn’t have meant to protect all workers from all health risks without cost consideration. Effectively, the Court rejected the Precautionary Principle as an unreasonable standard with which to hold business. A plurality tried to create a standard for workplace health that would activate OSHA action, rather unhelpfully noting that it should lie somewhere between a 1 x 1000 chance of illness and a 1 x 1,000,000 chance. What this did was allow the Reagan administration to effectively avoid health regulations on the job at all after it took power in 1981 by adhering to the 1 in a million standard. Thurgood Marshall wrote a blistering dissent (Brennan, White, and Blackmun making up the rest of the minority) saying the decision placed “the burden of medical uncertainty squarely on the shoulders of the American worker.”

Despite Industrial Union Department, American work is much safer and healthier today than it was decades ago. Unfortunately, a lot of the reason for that is the outsourcing of such work to Latin American and Asian nations where workers labor in health-destroying conditions making products for American consumption.

While researching this case, I ran across a celebratory essay about the decision by one Antonin Scalia in an American Enterprise Institute publication.

The roots of this week’s decision in Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency
can be seen in Industrial Union Department, as Scalia’s opinion relied heavily on the same cost-benefit analysis as that case.

I don’t think there is a single book that really deals with this case effectively, but it is mentioned in Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner’s Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, which is a very good book on the larger issue of workplace health. I also consulted Albert Matheny and Bruce Williams, “Regulation, Risk Assessment, and the Supreme Court: The Case of OSHA’s Cancer Policy,” in Law and Policy, October 1984.

This is the 149th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Foolishness of Post-Work Utopianism

[ 176 ] July 1, 2015 |

Claims-for-unemployment-benefits-drop-in-the-First-Week-of-March

Every now and again, you see some essay about the utopia of a post-work society, suggesting that the disappearance of traditional paid labor (a lot of which is not much fun) will allow people’s real passions to flourish. Derek Thompson wrote a very long Atlantic piece exploring these ideas in a very positive way. I was not pleased. There is no utopian end of work. What follows the end of work is poverty. And such articles undermine what we actually need–motivating people to political action for economic justice and good jobs. The threat of automation creating mass unemployment is real enough, as I have discussed here repeatedly. But there’s nothing positive at the end of that process. Moreover, I felt like, although I can’t know, that all the people Thompson talked to as examples of people already engaging in a post-(traditional) work economy are relatively well-educated white people–the PhD who decided to start a foundry where people like mixed media artists and engineers come to labor/leisure, the bartender in Youngstown who is also a PhD student at the University of Chicago, the writer with two master’s degrees working in a cafe. Where are the African-Americans in Youngstown or Native Americans on the reservations already suffering from long-term unemployment? Do they have a place in this post-work future? They sure don’t seem to in Thompson’s article.

Luckily, I’m not the only person rolling their eyes at this sort of thing. Mike Konczal:

There’s been a consistent trend of these stories going back decades, with a huge wave of them coming after the Great Recession. Thompson’s piece is likely to be the best of the bunch. It’s empathetic, well reported, and imaginative. I also hope it’s the last of these end-of-work stories for the time being.

At this point, the preponderance of stories about work ending is itself doing a certain kind of labor, one that distracts us and leads us away from questions we need to answer. These stories, beyond being untethered to the current economy, distract from current problems in the workforce, push laborers to identify with capitalists while ignoring deeper transitional matters, and don’t even challenge what a serious, radical story of ownership this would bring into question.

But what is the impact of these stories? In the short term, the most important is that they allow us to dream about a world where the current problems of labor don’t exist, because they’ve been magically solved. This is a problem, because the conditions and compensation of work are some of our biggest challenges. In these future scenarios, there’s no need to organize, seek full employment, or otherwise balance the relationship between labor and capital, because the former doesn’t exist anymore.

This is especially a problem when it leaves the “what if” fiction writings of op-eds, or provocative calls to reexamine the nature of work in our daily lives, and melds into organizational politics. I certainly see a “why does this matter, the robots are coming” mentality among the type of liberal infrastructure groups that are meant to mobilize resources and planning to build a more just economy. The more this comforting fiction takes hold, the more problematic it becomes and easier it is for liberals to become resigned to low wages.

Because even if these scenarios pan out, work is around for a while. Let’s be aggressive with a scenario here: Let’s say the need for hours worked in the economy caps right now. This is it; this is the most we’ll ever work in the United States. (It won’t be.) In addition, the amount of hours worked decreases rapidly by 4 percent a year so that it is cut to around 25 percent of the current total in 34 years. (This won’t happen.)

Back of the envelope, during this time period people in the United States will work a total of around 2 billion work years. Or roughly 10,000 times as long as human beings have existed. What kinds of lives and experiences will those workers have?

Worker power matters, ironically, because it’s difficult to imagine the productivity growth necessary to get to this world without some sense that labor is strong. If wages are stagnant or even falling, what incentive is there to build the robots to replace those workers? Nothing is certain here, but you can see periods where low unemployment is correlated with faster productivity gains. The best way forward to a post-work atmosphere will probably be to embrace labor, not hope it goes away.

And if you actually were going to promote a post-work utopianism, you’d think you would go so far as to endorse the one policy that might alleviate a few of these problems, which is universal basic income. But nope, not a word about that. Just a vague of sense of fulfillment and belonging through artisanship and a sort of government funded online-WPA type proposal. So the policy recommendations here really fall short of even beginning to think about how to deal with unemployment in the present or in the future.

Finally, Thompson’s story ends with a 60 year old going back to get a master’s degree so he can become a teacher. He writes, “It took the loss of so many jobs to force him to pursue the work he always wanted to do.” Except that where are the jobs for 60 year old teachers?!? Thompson just leaves this here as if personal fulfillment somehow leads to economic stability. And anyone who knows anything about the current state of education and employment knows that even if you do love teaching, the realities of being in a classroom in a Rheeist society of extreme testing and attacks on teachers’ unions is not some glorious result. Rather, Thompson is engaging in a sort of romanticizing of teaching (a long tradition) to avoid real conclusions and a strong basis in the realities of work and labor policy in the United States.

In conclusion, I really have to wonder how many of these people who write about a post-work society in a hopeful way have ever actually experienced poverty or even basic working-class life. Not having employment is a terrible thing. And even if everyone else isn’t working either, it’s not like that leads to some universal acceptance of the situation and everyone getting over their Protestant work ethics. Rather, we can see what a bit of a post-work society looks like. It looks like Youngstown or it looks like southern West Virginia. And that’s not a vision anyone remotely progressive should want to replicate. If Youngstown is someone our national future because all the jobs are gone, there’s nothing to celebrate. There’s no positive endgame to that scenario.

Book Review: Alex Gourevitch: From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century

[ 22 ] June 29, 2015 |

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I don’t read much, or really any, political theory at this point in my life. It’s an important field but I have little background in it and the start-up cost of time and energy to read difficult texts is high. But political theorists can often add a great deal of context to the ideological framework of political movements. And so I was quite interested in reading Alex Gourevitch’s From Slavery to Cooperative Commonwealth, which is an exploration of how the Knights of Labor and other workers’ movements of the 19th century reframed ideas of republicanism in order to demand Independence from exploitative captialism.

Because of my lack of a background in political theory, I am writing this review in the context of how the book is useful for the U.S. historian. Framing his story with the biracial organizing of the Knights of Labor in Louisiana, which led to the Thibodaux Massacre, Gourevitch argues that the Knights created a rhetoric of freedom that could appeal to African-Americans because it was about not having masters of any kind. This brought together African-Americans’ lived experiences and memories of slavery with working people of all races who had new demands for emancipation from their employers. Ideally, the Knights hoped workers could create cooperative institutions that would allow them to be truly independent and avoid the tyranny of capital altogether.

This master-slave language was a significant transition in the history of republican thought. The two key points for Gourevitch is a) republicanism had largely been an elite language in the past and b) slavery was a real live thing in the United States and when it was gone, workers could then use that language to serve their own purposes. On the first, 19th century workers appropriated this elite language around independence and virtue to describe the world of labor relations. Slavery and elite republicanism had been tied together from the Greeks and Romans to the Founding Fathers in Virginia. Life in the United States challenged this in a number of ways, creating not only working class definitions of it, but most prominently, abolitionists who tried to disconnect the need for chattel slavery from American republican thought. Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison completely rejected workers’ claims to be slaves, often in vociferous terms, because workers were not unfree like slaves and therefore the comparison were not apt. Economic dependence was not unfreedom.

But the defeat of slavery then solved the abolitionist objection to worker use of this language, or at least made that appropriation less of a threat to their political project. With one form of slavery undone, workers sought to use republicanism to undo what was becoming a new and increasingly powerful form of unfreedom: the employer-employee relationship of the Gilded Age. The issue of independence was at the core of labor’s critique of this new system. The changes in American work developing before the Civil War began to create widespread changes to workers’ independence and freedom. If they labored for 12 hours but only made enough money to buy goods that took 4 hours to produce, that was 8 hours a day being stolen from them by their employer. And even if contracts were enforced fairly, the conditions of control had become so bad after the Civil War that workers were still oppressed. They didn’t make enough money to withhold their labor from employers, so the system was already unequal. Then the contract ceded total control of the workplace to the employer. Ultimately, only cooperative workers organizations could allow workers to escape this system of capitalism and regain their independence. A cooperative republic would challenge the dominant system of production and give workers control over their lives again.

This book gets at another key issue in American history, which is how a Republican Party that ended slavery and sought rights for free blacks during Reconstruction could then turn around and not only crush workers movements, but talk about unions in apocalyptic terms. But these two things were not contradictory in the mindset of Republicans. Garrison himself could celebrate black freedom in terms of “independent laborers by voluntary contract.” But what did “voluntary” mean? For mainstream Republicans, it was the conditions an employee agreed to when he (most likely) agreed to take a job. This construction of freedom did not have any room for other forms of compulsion like the need to eat or put a roof over your head. Freedom did not have to extend any farther than compulsory labor at the point of a lash. The Supreme Court itself roundly rejected the idea of alternative forms of tyranny in the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 when white New Orleans butchers said a new law forcing them to work at a single private institution violated the 14th Amendment by violating their economic independence and placing them in servitude. From there through Lochner, Gourevitch takes readers through how the courts routinely found that freedom of contract was true freedom, ignoring the increasingly unequal realities of Gilded Age society that led to the rise of the Knights in the 1870s and 1880s as a response.

Gourevitch also helps us understand the Knights’ unfortunate position toward immigrants, especially the Chinese and eastern Europeans. Labor republicans held themselves and other workers to very high standards because they believed the cooperative republic would have to rest on the morality of its members. These standards could easily not be fulfilled. They would them blame workers for their own failings. Given the racial milieu of the late 19th century, blaming workers for their own problems could easily morph into racial characterization. However, Gourevitch doesn’t really get into how the Knights managed to include African-Americans into this system when the Chinese and eastern Europeans could not be. That’s a weakness of the book, but you can read Joseph Gerteis’ Class and the Color Line for an understanding of that. Unfortunately, that book is not cited in Gourevitch’s bibliography, even though it was published in 2007. Interestingly, the two books use the same image for their cover.

Gourevitch does not shy away from the modern implications of his study in the New Gilded Age, noting that “who is subject to whose will” is a key question today. (177) Like in the 19th century, employers are using unnecessary power against workers to hurt their lives, such as cracking down on bathroom breaks to use Gourevitch’s example. He suggests the positives of using labor republicanism rhetoric and moving toward cooperative enterprises today. Personally, I’m really skeptical that cooperative enterprises can succeed on any large scale. But as I have argued before, one of the similarities between the two Gilded Ages is that in both cases, working people were smacked in the face by a radically transforming capitalism that left them figuring out just what the heck happened to their lives searching for any alternative to that system. So any alternative should be on the table today.

Ultimately, Gourevitch wrote a book that goes a long way to explaining some of the trickier and most often misunderstood intellectual trends in American history.

Big Win in the Fight for $15

[ 1 ] June 27, 2015 |

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Big victory for home health care workers in Massachusetts. The workers and their union, SEIU, came to an agreement with the state government to raise their minimum wage to $15 by July 2018. That’s still pretty far off given that they already make at least $13.30. But it’s also the first statewide agreement in SEIU’s Fight for $15 campaigns and that’s well worth noting and celebrating.

Guess How Much Qatar Cares About the Workers Dying in the Country?

[ 17 ] June 25, 2015 |

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It cares not one whit!

A senior governmental body in Qatar met on Monday and voted against ratifying proposed changes to the country’s much criticised labour laws.

The Advisory Council, which can approve legislation that must be signed off by the emir, agreed to send proposed reforms of employment law back to a committee for further review, the state news agency QNA reported, rather than approve them.

Doha has come under severe pressure to change its controversial kafala sponsorship system of employment, which restricts the rights and freedoms of foreign workers. The wealthy Gulf state, which is due to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, has been criticised by rights groups for failing to provide adequate working conditions for those constructing football stadia.

New employment legislation was supposed to make it easier for foreign workers to change their jobs and gain entry and exit visas, however, local media reported that the Advisory Council has gone against this and proposed giving employers more control over their staff.

“If an expatriate worker deliberately creates problems for the employer and does not comply with the contract to force the latter to end the contract or transfer his sponsorship to another employer, he should not be allowed to change jobs even if he runs away,” the committee recommended, according to Peninsula news site.

In other words, the World Cup should clearly stay in this workers’ paradise.

How Not to Talk About Sweatshops

[ 35 ] June 25, 2015 |

Sweatshops

Active defenders of sweatshops really get under my skin because they combine a celebration of labor exploitation with cherry picking historical examples in order to create a false narrative of sweatshops leading to future national economic success.

Not so, says Benjamin Powell, a professor of economics and business at Texas Tech University who, controversially, argues that sweatshops are economically and socially beneficial to the countries they’re in.

“If you care about the consequences for the lives of developing nations workers I believe it is ethical to buy products made with sweatshop labor,” he says. Powell argues that sweatshops are not exclusive to poor countries in our modern, globalized world.

“My ancestors worked in the mills in Massachusetts. For the United Kingdom and the US, the process of development took more than 100 years to move through the sweatshop phase,” in which women and children worked in cotton mills, factories and manufacturing, he says.

Powell doesn’t suggest that sweatshops should be permanent fixtures but a stage in the development of developing nations, and they “often pay far above the levels of extreme poverty that exist in these countries and often even better than the countries’ average incomes. In 1960, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea all had sweatshops,” he says, but “in a generation they jumped from a pre-industrial standard of living to first world status.”

Major eyeroll here. First, sweatshops are not beneficial for these countries. They are rank exploitation. The sweatshops themselves did not lead to the economic explosion of South Korea and Taiwan. It’s not like those sweatshop workers were gaining skills that led to an information economy in Korea. And it’s not like the long-term sweatshops of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala has led to those nations rising economically. Rather, they have just been a next stage in a century of post-colonialist exploitation by American corporations. Note that the people making these arguments that sweatshops are great never reckon with the Latin American examples. They only focus on the Asian Tigers. But those nations have alternative reasons for their economic rise that include a) being close Cold War allies of the United States that led to massive economic growth as part of US foreign policy and b) steel and other heavy industries building huge new factories that out-competed the outdated US steel mills of the 1970s and 1980s, eventually forcing them to close. The heavy industry of China is a big reason why that nation has risen economically. Neither of those factors are likely to repeat themselves in the low-wage sweatshop economy of Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In other words,

And Lowell and the Triangle Fire were not necessary moments in the history of the rise of the American economy. The idea that the heavy exploitation of women workers in apparel factories is somehow required to have economic growth is completely absurd. Rather, these are highly avoidable situations where modern companies could still take advantage of relatively cheap labor while also not killing these workers, forcing them to undergo sexual harassment, pregnancy tests in order to work, stolen wages, etc. These are false choice offered by the defenders of the global race to the bottom. Back to the linked article:

“About 4 million people in Pakistan work in the textile industry and 95% of them never get the paperwork to prove it,” says Nasir Mansoor, deputy director of Pakistan’s Nation Trade Union Federation. “This means there’s no way for them to fight for their rights if something isn’t right.” The garment sector, he says, has some of the worst conditions for workers in the country.

“All garment factories, by law, have to register with the Pakistani government, but we estimate that 90% fail to do so and the government doesn’t enforce the law. It wasn’t too long ago that even inspecting the factories that were registered became outlawed in some provinces so there was no way to know what was happening in them either.”

It was only after the Karachi garment factory fire of 2012 that killed nearly 300 people and injured a similar number that the inspection ban was lifted.

Sajida Khanum, a 45-year-old, has only ever worked in sweatshops. She doesn’t want to disclose which factory she’s working in now for fear of losing her job and being blacklisted from working in factories again.

She says there is no security in her job, and that sometimes, when there is not enough work to do, she has to beg her contractor for work. Khanum gets paid about 40 cents per item she makes. “We have to work fast because we get paid per dozen garments.”

Khanum has been working in garment factories for 15 years. She says most workers live the contradictions of working in sweatshops. “We all do it because its necessary, what else are we to do? I’m uneducated, all I know is this job.”

It might be a hard pill to swallow, but what Pakistani garment industry workers Ahmad and Khanum say reflects what Powell has found in his research.

“When workers choose to take employment in a sweatshop, it demonstrates that they believe it is the least bad option available to them,” he says. “That means that, relative to their previous situation, these sweatshops improve their lives.”

Despite the rather specious reasoning over worker choice offered above (what other choice do these workers have, starvation? prostitution?), I do agree that we should not shut down these factories if we aren’t going to replace them with something else for these workers. After all, Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladeshi workers’ movement, urges developed world consumers not to boycott these clothes because these workers need jobs.

So how do we fix these conditions while also empowering women workers and helping the world’s poor increase their economic status? As I’ve said in Out of Sight (now available for a Madison presidential election price of $18.08!), we have to create international standards that allow the poor of the world to live dignified lives and create middle classes of their own in ways that do not accept rampant exploitation. That must place power in the hands of workers to sue these corporations like Walmart and Gap if they or their contractors violate international standards of wages, working conditions, and pollution. This is how you create middle classes in nations like Bangladesh while taking away the incentive for these multinational corporations to move to the next nation as soon as these workers succeed in forming a union or enforcing a minimum wage. This is how you work toward international labor solidarity and it’s how you push back against defenders of the exploitation and murder of poor workers on the job.

Labor Picketing

[ 19 ] June 24, 2015 |

Portrait

This opinion piece by Catherine Fisk and Edwin Chemerinsky is quite interesting. Did the Supreme Court accidentally set a precedent to eliminate bans on labor picketing?

Reed v. Town of Gilbert’s reasoning makes it clear that restrictions on labor picketing can no longer survive First Amendment scrutiny. Sections 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) of the National Labor Relations Act prohibit speech, including peaceful picketing, if a “labor organization” or its agents is the speaker and based on the message. Section 8(b)(7) prohibits picketing urging workers to join a union or employers to recognize one if the picketing lasts longer than “a reasonable time” not to exceed 30 days. Thus, the National Labor Relations Board’s enforcement arm sought to enjoin workers affiliated with Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) from picketing with signs saying “Stand Up, Live Better,” “Walmart, respeta a los trabajadores” (Walmart, respect workers), and “Let Walmart Associates Speak Out.” And under 8(b)(7) fast food workers can picket outside restaurants with signs asking to be paid $15 an hour or that the city adopt a $15 minimum wage ordinance, but they cannot picket for more than a reasonable time urging workers to demand $15 and a union. Section 8(b)(4) prohibits picketing urging secondary boycotts, and thus prohibits members of a labor union from picketing at a retail store urging a boycott of the store because its low prices are the result of low wages paid by a subcontractor that produces goods sold in the store or that operates the warehouse whence the store’s goods are shipped. But a store employee would be allowed to picket to urge customers to shop at the store because of its low prices.

The 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) restrictions on picketing clearly violate the First Amendment as the Court interpreted it in Reed v. Town of Gilbert. They prohibit speech based on its content because they, as the Court explained, “single[] out specific subject matter for differential treatment.”

Therefore, the picketing restrictions in section 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) can be upheld only if they are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest. In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the Court assumed for the sake of argument that the government has a compelling interest in regulating aesthetics and traffic, but rejected the Town’s contention that the regulations were narrowly tailored to protect the Town’s aesthetic appeal or traffic flow because the law was under-inclusive – it allowed signs with some messages but not others. The government might argue that 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) serve the compelling interest of preventing unjustified work stoppages and consumer boycotts. Eliminating work stoppages and consumer boycotts is, in our view, not a compelling governmental interest. But even if it were, prohibiting picketing is both overbroad and under-inclusive. Any group other than a labor organization is free to urge a consumer boycott or that workers strike to demand higher wages, and even labor organizations are allowed to use leaflets (rather than picket signs) to urge boycotts or strikes. The picketing prohibitions are under-inclusive if the goal is to eliminate encouragement of boycotts and strikes. And 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) are over-inclusive to the extent that they prohibit peaceful advocacy rather than actually striking or boycotting.

I guess my views on this are like my usual belief about the Supreme Court–that the justices will create ways to enforce their own personal political preferences. This is quite the development and may create a path forward but it’s hard for me to believe that Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia care one whit for precedence when it might help a labor union.

How Fast Track Hurts American Families

[ 102 ] June 23, 2015 |

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There are somewhat weird arguments liberals make about trade that allows people to easily justify the loss of millions of American jobs because of slight improvements in income for the Vietnamese and Bangladeshi workers who replace them. There are a couple of serious problems with these arguments. First, it is essentially pro-capitalist, reinforcing the idea of employers as “job creators” who ultimately benefit society, as opposed to the profit-seekers who are willing to undermine any nation’s working class for the next quarterly report. Second, it shows shockingly little sophisticated analysis over how this process actually affects their own nation. The rise of Citizens United and the Koch Brothers’ control over American politics is directly linked to the decline of working-class voices in those politics that happened when the industrial unions were crushed. If you like high levels of income inequality and plutocrat control over America, fast track is for you. Third, these arguments allow for a sort of consumer myopia over their own role in the supply chain. By saying that American employers are improving the lives of workers overseas, it means that we don’t really have to worry about the actual conditions of work in these factories–child labor, slave labor, sexual harassment, forced pregnancy tests, beating by supervisors, unsafe working conditions, low wages, buildings collapsing on workers. All of these things are terrible and unnecessary.

Finally, it also undermines a basic fact–that nations need to have an interest in creating good jobs for its own citizens. I’m no believer in old-school protectionism, but unless the nation is creating good jobs for working Americans–moving the emphasis in our job creation from the creative class and highly-educated to average Americans–income inequality will continue to grow, as will societal instability. This is where United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard comes in, telling stories about how fast track hurts his members and working Americans.

They should, for example, pay attention to Kori Sherwood. When she got a job two years ago as a millwright at U.S. Steel’s Minntac facility in the Minnesota Iron Range, it changed her life and that of her young daughter. But in March, U.S. Steel sent layoff notices to 680 of Minntac’s 1,500 workers, citing an international glut of steel. Prices are at a 12-year low as mills in China continue to produce and ship massive amounts of steel and sell it at below market prices made possible by improper government subsidies and support.

Under international trade law, countries can prop up industry with government subsidies when the products are sold internally. Beijing may give its steel industry no-interest loans and free electricity when the rebar or pipe or I-beams are sold for construction projects in China. But international trade law forbids such subsidies when the goods are sold internationally because government aid suppresses product prices in what is supposed to be a free market. Some countries, however, routinely flout the rules. Then American companies that don’t get no-interest government loans or free electricity or other subsidies can’t compete on price.

They shut down mills and lay off workers. Unions and manufacturers are forced to pay millions to petition for import duties on the subsidized foreign goods to level the playing field. To win such a case, industry must prove financial injury and workers must suffer layoffs and lost income.

Kori Sherwood got one of U.S. Steel’s layoff notices and lost her job at Minntac on May 26. China’s violation of international trade rules dashed Sherwood’s hopes and plans. “You finally think you get your life in order – buy a truck, buy a home, and it all falls apart,” she said.

Import-adoring lawmakers should talk to tire builders from Tuscaloosa and Gadsden Ala., Findlay, Ohio, and Salem, Va., who have watched with endless anxiety over the past decade as American manufacturers closed plants and cut production because Chinese producers dumped subsidized passenger and light truck tires into the U.S. market.

After the USW petitioned for relief, the U.S. imposed import duties on Chinese tires beginning in 2009 and imports declined significantly. American producers regained market share and invested in American factories. They recalled laid off workers and even hired new ones.

But the second the duties expired, Chinese producers resumed dumping. American companies once again cut production, reduced workers’ hours and furloughed staff. The USW petitioned for trade relief again a year ago, and the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed preliminary duties. Since then, U.S. tire companies have ramped up production and increased workers’ shifts.

In testimony earlier this month before the U.S. International Trade Commission seeking permanent duties, David Hayes, president of the USW local union at Goodyear’s tire plant in Gadsden, talked about how the waves of dumped foreign tires have denied his fellow 1,500 workers job stability as layoffs followed each import surge.

These are actually important issues that liberals need to take seriously. The Kori Sherwood’s of the world need good jobs if we want the United States to be a stable nation in the 21st century that treats its citizens with respect. Supporters of the Trans Pacific Partnership need to articulate what happens to Kori Sherwood. NAFTA supporters used to say that the creative economy would take care of these people. Of course those were delusional statements of true believers in the religion of free trade. Now supporters of the TPP aren’t even trying to answer that question, including President Obama.

If we are going to have these trade agreements, we need to have international rules that protect workers wherever the jobs are located. Out of Sight is my answer to free trade advocates who claim that Americans who want the American working class to have good jobs don’t care about the poor overseas. But I haven’t heard any reasonable articulation of what happens to Kori Sherwood from advocates of the Trans Pacific Partnership. Maybe she can get a job at McDonald’s or work a temp job that never becomes permanent.

This Day in Labor History: June 22, 1922

[ 24 ] June 22, 2015 |

On June 22, 1922, a night and early morning of angry United Mine Workers of America members massacring strikebreakers and mine guards ended in Herrin, Illinois. Twenty-one people died, 19 of which were the strikebreakers and guards. This spasm of violence is a rare example of American labor history where workers killed more people than the forces of order. It’s also a sign of the desperation and anger of coal miners by the 1920s over the terrible treatment of themselves and their unions. Finally, the UMWA strategy of avoiding blame for this incident by blaming nonexistent communists for leading the mob proved a pioneering incident of a long history of American organized labor redbaiting.

In April 1922, the United Mine Workers of America, led by their new president John L. Lewis, began a nationwide coal strike. Lewis wanted to establish his union as a power in the labor movement and his members took a strong stance against strikebreakers. Herrin, Illinois was in the center of an area called Little Egypt, a bituminous mining zone in the southern part of that state.

Owners did not want to cave but some did not want to have a showdown with the UMWA either. The Southern Illinois Coal Company was one of those, as it was a union shop. Originally, it agreed that while its members would continue to mine coal, it would not ship any of it until the strike ended. The UMWA agreed with this because the mine was newly opened and heavily indebted. The miners did not want the mine to close permanently, so this somewhat odd arrangement developed. By June, the miners had dug out 60,000 tons of coal that waited for shipment.

But when coal prices rose because of the strike, William Lester, the company’s owner, could not resist selling it, even though he had earlier counseled the state to let the strike go on without interference. Realizing he would pull $250,000 in profit if he broke the agreement, he hired 50 strikebreakers and private guards for them. The private guards soon intimidated local residents and hoped to bully the UMWA out of the strike. On June 16, he shipped out sixteen rail cars filled with coal, guarded by his private police force armed with machine guns.

Tensions rose quickly. 30,000 UMWA members lived in the area and they were shocked. They held a mass meeting. Lewis sent a message to them saying the local was “justified in treating this crowd [the scabs and private police] as an outlaw organization.” The head of the Illinois National Guard came to meet with Lester to get him to ease those tensions. By this time though, the coal owner was determined to crush the union. On June 21, a group of miners attacked a train of scabs, killing its driver. Later that afternoon, another group looted a local hardware store for its guns, went to the mine and started shooting the guards. The county sheriff was a UMWA member and did nothing to prevent this.

Eventually, the guards and strikebreakers surrendered after a night of shooting. But the miners and town residents were infuriated over the lies of Lester and how the guards had treated them. The scabs were beaten and pistol-whipped by the union members. Someone evidently said they should be killed, but it’s impossible to really know what started the next stage, which was opening fire on the guards and scabs. One of the first to die was mine superintendent C.K. McDowell, who had led the guards. The killing lasted into the morning of the 22nd. Some were forced to crawl on their hands and knees to the town cemetery before being killed. By the end of it, 19 strikebreakers and guards lay dead, along with 2 UMWA members. The local police force, evidently sympathetic with their miner friends and families, never showed up.

Nationally, opinion was strongly against the UMWA. President Harding and General John Pershing demanded prosecutions against the guilty while the Illinois Chamber of Commerce put out a fundraising appeal to subsidize the case. But while an inquest took place and 214 indictments were handed down for murder, riot, and conspiracy, no one was ever convicted of any crime for the Herrin Massacre. The first jury acquitted everyone within an hour. The second acquitted seven more. The prosecution gave up. Part of this was an inability to actually prove who did what. Part of it was overwhelming hostility from the townspeople toward the investigators. They refused to assist the investigation at all and blamed it all on vague people from other towns.

Prominent in Herrin Massacre Trial

The UMWA responded to the criticism of its members’ actions by claiming the incident was led by communist insurgents that had nothing to do with the union. Union officials had previously told investigators that while they didn’t know anyone involved (which was certainly not true), there were certainly no radicals involved in the incident. But in 1923, John L. Lewis said at the UMWA convention, “in every instance where there has been any disorder or disturbance of the public peace in mining regions there has been there secretly men of this type.” The United Mine Workers Journal began publishing articles backing this up, albeit without actual evidence. One said, “in fact, the miners’ union was in no manner responsible for what took place. This revolting, inexcusable, terrible crime was fomented, promoted, and caused solely by the Communists.” The following year, it issued an pamphlet titled “Attempts by Communists to Seize the Labor Movement” to take this campaign to a wider audience. The coal operators rejected this of course, but the UMWA did find out how effective anticommunist politics could be for a labor union. Interestingly, the UMWA did actually uncover claims by communists that they were involved in Little Egypt, but historians have rejected this, saying there is no evidence of any meaningful communist organizing in southern Illinois during the 1920s. That the Communist Party would take credit for its own opportunistic reasons served Lewis’ purpose like nothing else.

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Ultimately, the United Mine Workers came out of the Herrin Massacre completely unscathed as an organization. Yet the 1920s ultimately would prove disastrous for the UMWA and it would not be until the Roosevelt administration that it would rise to become the power in the labor movement it is known as in the mid-twentieth century.

I borrowed from Jennifer Luff, Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars in the writing of this post.

This is the 148th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Busting Don Blankenship

[ 25 ] June 20, 2015 |

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Don Blankenship is one of the worst human beings living in the United States today. The CEO of Massey Energy, the horrible safety record in his mines led to the deaths of 29 miners in a coal dust explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010. Blankenship was a micro-manager and prided himself on buying West Virginia politicians and judges, thwarting regulators, intimidating workers into not report safety violations, and implementing not even the most basic safety systems. In other words, Don Blankeship modeled himself after the 19th century coal mine barons who ruled West Virginia as a personal fiefdom.

What’s remarkable, as this New York Times article points out, is that Blankenship is being held accountable by the federal government for his actions
. He is under indictment on 4 counts that could lead to 31 years in prison. That might seem as not all that notable–Blankenship is directly responsible for these deaths, especially so because he managed every part of that mine. But it is notable because this has never happened in West Virginia before. Coal operators have long expected to operate their mines and the state as they will. Where the article falls short is in really getting into why the federal government has acted so differently now. I imagine the reason is a Mine Safety and Health Administration and federal prosecutions invigorated by an Obama administration taking issues like regulation and workplace safety seriously. But this part of the equation only addressed obliquely.

I will also note that for all the talk in Appalachia about Obama’s War on Coal and how environmentalists are killing jobs, the coal industry now employs all of 28,000 people in central Appalachia. And while some of that is because of tighter environmental regulations, cheaper natural gas, the movement of the coal industry to the West, and mechanization all play a larger role.

This Day in Labor History: June 18, 1954

[ 29 ] June 18, 2015 |

On June 18, 1954, the CIA-trained coup against democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz began, an event that crushed Guatemalan labor, happened with the complicity of the American labor movement, and significantly destabilized Guatemala, helping to create the violence that afflicts that nation and the large-scale undocumented migration to the United States today.

Born in 1913, Jacobo Árbenz became a top military officer under the leadership of the United Fruit (and thus U.S.) supported dictator Jorge Ubico. Árbenz was forced to escort chain-gangs of prisoners, which disgusted and radicalized him. In 1944, he assisted in a coup against Ubico and was offered the position of Minister of Defense from the democratically elected new president of the nation, Juan José Arévalo. After Arévalo died in 1950, Árbenz won the election to replace him.

United Fruit had a significant presence in Guatemala from the first decade of the twentieth century, using its power over that poor nation to suppress any labor activity on its banana plantations. For example, in 1923, UFCO had the strong support of the current military dictatorship to violently repress a strike; said dictatorship had come to power with the company’s support after a government opposed its interests. In 1928, Guatemala nearly went to war with Honduras on UFCO’s orders over a disputed region on the Honduran border, with the latter nation doing the bidding of UFCO rival Cuyamel Fruit. By the mid-1940s, Guatemala had around one-fourth of the company’s Latin American operations. United Fruit had been major supporters of Ubico, who effectively followed its orders. Ubico and other presidents gave significant concessions to United Fruit, robbing the nation of both its land and tax revenues that could have built infrastructure and social programs for the nation’s poor. In fact, Ubico actually asked UFCO to lower its wages to 50 cents a day as to not cause other employers to have to pay workers more. You can guess UFCO’s response to that request.

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United Fruit plantation in Central America

Árbenz’s primary goal was modernizing Guatemala. To do so, he needed to wrest control of his nation’s future from the single corporation that controlled it: United Fruit. So Árbenz made his number one priority land reform, which through much of Latin American history has been the major goal of left-leaning movements against the church, conservatives, and outside corporations. He issued Decree 900, giving the government the right to expropriate unused land from agricultural corporations, compensating the owners. That included United Fruit, which had a lot of land now out of production thanks to banana monocultures leading to diseases that kill trees. During the 18 months of the program’s existence, 1.5 million acres were distributed to 100,000 families.

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Jacobo Árbenz

Árbenz had significant support from labor unions in Guatemala for his reforms. He had started forging links to the Guatemalan labor movement early in his rise. The Guatemalan labor movement had significant ties to the Communist Party and the CP supported Árbenz, thus helping to deliver that rank and file labor support. With United Fruit and conservative elements of the Guatemalan industry shouting that Árbenz was a communist, even though he was just a nationalist, he embraced the idea of it since the policies the U.S. supported in his nation were so awful that being a communist could not be all bad.

United Fruit had urged the U.S. to overthrow what it claimed were communist-led governments in Guatemala going back to 1945. Those calls were heard when the Eisenhower administration took power in 1953. United Fruit had very close connections to Eisenhower’s foreign policy team, especially Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA head Allen Dulles. The Dulles brothers had both done legal work for United Fruit before joining the administration. They and Eisenhower were aggressive about using the CIA to undermine left-wing movements in the developing world and quickly moved to eliminate Arbenz. The CIA went so far as to personally select his replacement, Carlos Castillo Armas. The initial CIA-funded invasion was pathetic and made little impact, but Árbenz was afraid that an overwhelming victory over these forces would provoke direct American action. That happened anyway through airpower and the use of napalm against ships exporting goods out of the nation. By June 27, the CIA won through creating a crisis of confidence against Árbenz in the military, who forced him to resign.

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Castllo Armas entering Guatemala City. CIA agent at wheel.

Always vociferously anti-communist at home, the American Federation Labor happily worked with the CIA during the Cold War to undermine left-leaning labor unions in the developing world and foster politically conservative unionism that would promote the goals of American foreign policy. Shortly before the coup, the AFL’s Latin American Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers (ORIT) established an organization in Mexico called Guatemalan Workers in Exile. Effectively, it was an operation to create a right-wing labor movement for the post-coup government. Ten days after the coup, Serafino Romualdi, the AFL’s ambassador to Latin America, was in Guatemala City with the figurehead of ORIT and the leader of the right-wing labor movement in Batista’s Cuba to take over the former Guatemalan trade union building and reestablish the labor movement on lines friendly to the U.S. government and United Fruit. This attempt to create a moderate anti-communist trade union that would be a respected member of a U.S.-friendly government failed completely as the new military regime didn’t care less about the roots of unions and sought to crush all organized labor.

Guatemala suffered under decades of military dictatorships supported by the United States and its corporations, culminating in the rule of Efraín Ríos Montt, the Reagan supported military leader in the early 1980s who engaged in a genocidal campaign against the nation’s indigenous population, defining them as communists for being indigenous.

For years, Árbenz floated around Europe, trying to find a place to live. The CIA muscled western European nations to deny him. The Czechs didn’t want him because they were nervous he would seek financial remuneration for the shoddy guns they sold him before the coup. The Soviets took him for awhile but he wanted to return to Latin America. He eventually ended up in Cuba after the Revolution. Later he moved to Mexico. Over all this time, he sunk into desperation and alcoholism before drowning in a bathtub in 1971.

Today, Guatemala is one of the world’s most violent and dangerous nations thanks in no small part to the destabilization caused in 1954. The U.S. continues to engage in a post-colonial relationship with Guatemala and its workers, including the exploitation of the poor by apparel industry sweatshops who will just jump 20 miles to Honduras or El Salvador if the nation enforces labor regulations or allows its workers to form strong unions. Repression of labor has been the hallmark of Guatemala governments in the 21st century.

I borrowed from Deborah Levenson-Estrada, Trade Unionists Against Terror: Guatemala City, 1954-85 and Stephen Schlesinger, Stephen Kinzer, and John Coatsworth, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala in writing this post.

This is the 147th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Feminist Language and the Exploitation of Women Workers

[ 9 ] June 17, 2015 |

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I go into this a bit in Out of Sight, but Hester Eisenstein goes into much greater detail into how the global export industries have engaged in the widespread exploitation of women, often using the language of feminism to justify them doing so. Eisenstein also notes how many scholars have fallen into this trap, assuming that the limited gains women might make from a job in an apparel factory is a real path to women’s liberation. That’s not because work, even low paid work, can’t play a role in women’s liberation, but because the global economy simply does not provide a path for most of the world’s workers to improve their lives anymore.

There is no doubt that working in EPZ factories, which provide young women with an independent income, can have a liberating effect. These women are following the path prescribed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: instead of doing unpaid and exhausting work on a farm, subject to feudal and patriarchal controls, seek employment in factories, which can bring economic autonomy and a consciousness of one’s capacities. But what may be true in theory is often less so in practice, especially given the harsh conditions under which most women in EPZs work.

Conditions in EPZs vary from country to country, but nearly all are exempt from national labor laws, and as a 2004 report by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions shows, employers are ruthless in crushing unionizing attempts and in going after labor organizers.

Even if they don’t try to unionize, female EPZ workers face constant harassment. At CODEVI, a company located in Haiti’s Ouanaminth free-trade zone, workers producing Levi’s jeans for the clothing group Grupo M have experienced “abductions, beatings, arbitrary dismissals, verbal abuse, unpaid overtime, intimidation with firearms, and interrogations.”

In Mexico, workers are usually on short-term contracts, with no job security. Women applying for jobs can be subjected to health tests, including pregnancy testing, which can involve being examined naked and “asked intrusive personal questions such as, “‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ ‘How often do you have sex?’ and ‘Do you have children?’”

Jeremy Seabrook, who has also observed factories in Bangladesh, agrees with Kabeer that the women workers of Dhaka, Bangladesh go through epic struggles to get factory jobs, having to overcome the obstacles placed in their path by patriarchal families and communities. But he argues that the women have no power to decide which industries settle in Bangladesh to take advantage of them.

They work fourteen-hour days, with wages often delayed, and endure brutal overseers and extremely dangerous working conditions; he witnessed a fire in Dhaka on August 27, 2000, that killed a dozen people and in recent years, more than two hundred factory workers have died in fires. More recently, the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse outside Dhaka killed more than one thousand workers. As Seabrook remarks, “This is scarcely a model of self-determination.”

Any reasonable definition of feminism must support the right of women to organize unions, to not be sexually abused on the job, to not have employment hinged on pregnancy tests, to make a living wage. Certainly we must be willing to read through how corporations co-opt the language of feminism (feministwashing???) in order to justify and even promote how they exploit women. Walmart, Gap, Target, and the many other western corporations operating in Asia and Latin America absolutely could ensure that the women their contractors hire do use those jobs to live a better life that not only emancipates them from reliance on men for income but also allows them to have dignified lives at work and home. They choose not to do that. We should recognize that and call out those who use feminist language to justify the exploitation of women.

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